The Gong Show may not have been the first televised amateur show, but it was definitely the most extreme. Literally anyone who was willing to face the shame of being ‘gonged’ could step up to the Gong Show stage and present their often-disputable talents to millions of viewers across the country. The result was a cavalcade of some of the most uniquely bizarre entertainment ever televised, as The Gong Show carved out its own personal niche in television history.
Chuck Barris, a veteran television producer whose credits included The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, was the brains behind The Gong Show, co-creating the show and functioning as the emcee. The acts he presented were judged on a scale of one to ten by a trio of celebrity judges. The finalists would be rounded up at the end of the show and the audience would pick a winner via the ‘Applause-O-Meter.’
If the judges didn’t like what they saw, they could pick up a padded mallet and hit a large gong stationed behind their podium to unceremoniously curtail the act they didn’t like. This often led to chaos when two of the judges disagreed over what constituted a ‘gong-able’ act, wrestling with each other as one tried to prevent the other from gonging a contestant. Occasionally the acts were so wacky that they would all be gonged, and the show ended with no winners.
Comedians were often regulars on the judge panel, the most notable ones being Jaye P. Morgan, Arte Johnson, Rip Taylor (later to host another Barris creation, The $1.98 Beauty Show), and Jamie Farr. Other panelists included celebrities as diverse as film critic Rex Reed, columnist Dr. Joyce Brothers and musician Paul Williams. Another notable regular on the show was Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, a stagehand who danced spasmodically across the stage until pelted with various objects by the show’s panelists. There was also the Unknown Comic, a whacked-out stand-up comedian who told jokes of the lowest class while wearing a paper bag on his head.
These guests were enticing attractions, but the true heart of The Gong Show was the array of unusual talents that passed across the stage. Though this group of people was often rumored to consist of out-of-work actors, there were also plenty of true-blue oddities that did all sorts of crazy things to stake their claim to fame. The various “entertainers” included a girl who whistled through her nose, a dentist who played “The Star Spangled Banner” with his drill, and dogs that musically barked their way through a song. A recurring contestant theme was overweight ladies who performed their acts while wearing skimpy costumes, a category that included singers, dancers, and even strippers.
The end result of all this comedic chaos was a fascinating show that captured American pop culture at its most extreme. It became an instant hit when it reached the daytime airwaves in 1976, and it later moved to nighttime syndication, where it stayed on the air well into 1980. It also inspired a film, The Gong Show Movie, which was written and directed by Barris himself.
Since then, the show has continued to stun viewers around the world both in rerun form and through a short-lived 1988 revival with new host Don Bleu. Many viewers may argue over the show’s merits, but there is one thing that no one can deny: The Gong Show was, is, and always will be one of the most memorable television shows of all time.
USA / NBC – Syndication x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 14 June 1976 – 21 July 1978 on NBC and then until 1980 in Syndication and 1988 in Syndication.
Chuck Barris as Host
Della Barris as Substitute Assistant
Gary Owens as Host (syndicated version, 1976-77)
Jaye P. Morgan as Panelist
Milton Delugg as Leader of the Band with the Thug
Gene Patton as Gene Gene the Dancing Machine!
Jerry Maren as Confetti Thrower (1976)
Larry Spencer as Larry/The Evil Villain
Sivi Aberg as Assistant
Marlana Clark as Substitute Assistant
Carol Connors as Substitute Assistant
Phyllis Diller as Panelist
Jamie Farr as Panelist
Jill Freeman as Substitute Assistant
Johnny Jacobs as Announcer
Arte Johnson as Panelist
Murray Langston as The Unknown Comic (uncredited)
David Letterman as Panelist
Julie McCray as Substitute Assistant
Rex Reed as Panelist